Kenneth Lee Boyd acquires a dubious distinction today. He will be the 1000th person executed for a capital crime since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1976. The North Carolina man will receive a lethal injection for murdering his estranged wife and her father in 1988. Boyd emptied his gun in a rage into his two relatives while one of his sons was pinned under his mother’s body. When he tried to reload, another son got the pistol away from his father.
Capital punishment is not fun, not something to be celebrated, and not for the squeamish. It is, after all, punishment, death by lethal injection, the electric chair, or in some few cases, firing squad. It isn’t pretty and it isn’t trivial. But it is necessary and appropriate.
I do not like the death penalty, but I have always supported the right of duly appointed governmental authorities to exercise the death penalty. I assume this position, not so much because I believe the death penalty is a deterrent to crime (though it might be; the evidence is ambiguous), but because I believe crimes like murder and rape are an ultimate transgression of the law of God.
In the Old Testament, Genesis 9:6, God said, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God has God made man.” In the New Testament, Romans 13:3-4, God says, “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
God vested in governmental authority the right and responsibility to establish order and restrain evil. Nowhere in Scripture does he rescind this mandate. While it is true governments have done evil and that men and women in authority have at times acted arbitrarily, ignorantly, and cruelly, this does not change God’s design for human government. In most cultures, capital punishment for the most heinous crimes has always been the purview of government in order to protect individuals and preserve their civilization.
Yet in recent years public support for the death penalty seems to be declining. In part this is due to new technology and DNA testing that has demonstrated that a few innocent (at least of the crime in question) men have been consigned to death row.
I recognize this. My support for capital punishment does not mean that the criminal justice system through which we arrive at such ultimate sentences should not be evaluated and improved or reformed. DNA testing is a significant advance in forensic science and should be used in every appropriate opportunity. Generous and thorough appeals processes, though often lengthy, should be made available in this most serious of decisions. Clemency, the legal means through which state governors may show mercy to inmates, is and should be exercised when extenuating circumstances warrant unmerited grace.
All of these lawful protections—guilt determined by evidence, opportunities to appeal, and potential clemency—were instituted to help assure the American criminal justice system is as fair, conscientious, and ethical as humanly possible. Capital punishment for guilty individuals only results after all these avenues of legal redress have been exhausted.
Consequently, I favor continued scrutiny of the process by which capital punishment is determined. I favor improving that process as advances in evidentiary technology allows, and I favor maintaining capital punishment. I care about Kenneth Lee Boyd, but the system has treated him with more respect than he treated his family so many years ago.
© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2005
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